Parishioners Scrap Party for Ex-Pastor

By Joshua L. Weinstein
Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]
January 4, 2005

Roman Catholic parishioners organizing a reception to honor a priest who was forced to resign late last year canceled the event Monday, hours after advocates for sexual-abuse victims condemned their plans.

The reception for the Rev. Paul Coughlin was not sponsored by the Diocese of Portland, which in October ordered Coughlin to resign as pastor of Holy Cross and St. John the Evangelist parishes in South Portland.

Bishop Richard Malone's investigation determined that the 69-year-old cleric failed to report sexual misconduct by a church volunteer and allowed the man, who is now in prison, to live in the rectory at St. John from 1999 to 2001.

The bishop's investigation also determined that in 1985, while Coughlin was pastor at St. Mary's Church in Bangor, the priest had inappropriate physical contact with a minor.

The reception, however, was not meant to be about what Coughlin did wrong. It was intended to celebrate what he had done right.

"It was to honor, to have some people say 'thank you' to Father Coughlin for all that he did for them," said Anna Guesman, who lives in Bangor and was working on the reception.

She noted that Coughlin has never been accused of criminal activity, and that the diocese has consistently declined to provide specifics of the "inappropriate physical contact."

"All we know is that Father Coughlin tried to help a man who was out of work, had no place to live, and winter was coming, and he was trying to help him. That's his crime as far as we are concerned," Guesman said.

Paul Kendrick, who lives in Cumberland and is one of three abuse-victim advocates who criticized the plan Monday, said honoring Coughlin would make it difficult for victims of sexual assault to step forward.

He said that when Coughlin allowed John Skinner Sr. to live in the rectory, he placed all children at risk. Skinner has pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two boys he met through church youth programs in Lincoln.

"He (Coughlin) put his own parishes' kids at risk by having this guy around," Kendrick said.

He said honoring a man who put children at risk would have sent the wrong message to other victims. "I don't know how you can go over there and joke and laugh with somebody who has put kids at risk," Kendrick said. "He knew better. Coughlin knew everything he was doing."

Rick O'Brien, St. John's Finance Council chairman and a member of the Diocesan Crisis Response Team, was helping organize the reception, although not in his official capacity.

On Monday, he said only that the event will not occur. "We just canceled it," he said. "That's all."

The reception was to be held Sunday in the South Portland VFW hall.

Sue Bernard, a diocese spokeswoman, said the bishop heard about the reception about a week ago. Because the event was not church-sponsored, she said, there was nothing the bishop could do about it.

"If the bishop wanted to have a party or a celebration, he would have had it," she said. "We did not feel that it would be the appropriate thing."

The Jan. 2 issue of the church bulletin included a note from Coughlin to parishioners, thanking them for birthday and Christmas cards.

"It is friends like you who, through their prayers and love, help me to keep a peaceful heart," he wrote.

The Rev. Michael Gendreau, who permitted Coughlin to include the note, said he did not believe letting Coughlin include remarks in the official publication would be hurtful.

Rather, he said, it was "a pastoral decision to offer some pastoral care to Father Paul."

He said he did not believe it would signal anything to victims of sexual assault.

"If there are others out there who are victims, they should feel that they can come and speak . . . about their wound in a safe place, and the church would be a safe place and a welcoming place for them," he said.


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